The Mediocrity of Bush’s Campaign

Xian called the election a “blowout”. I call it a poor performance by George W. Bush.

This was no blowout. Bush and his minders will yell over and over through the so-called liberal media that he has a real mandate, that this was a landslide, that the middle of the country’s road is conservative. But that’s Newspeak, not science. The science is as follows.

Bush increased his share of votes by less you’d expect of a two-termer. He moved the popular vote his way by only 3.6 percentage points from 2000. Here’s a complete list of every pair of consecutive presidential victories since the Civil War (i.e., omitting Grover Cleveland’s campaigns); this is a list from worst performance to best. Bush’s improvement in proportion of the popular vote is only average—or, more accurately, the median:

  1. 1940 F. Roosevelt -14.3%
  2. 1916 Wilson -11.3%
  3. 1944 F. Roosevelt -2.4%
  4. 1900 McKinley +1.8%
  5. 1996 Clinton +2.9%
  6. 2004 G.W. Bush +3.6%
  7. 1956 Eisenhower +4.6%
  8. 1936 F. Roosevelt +6.5%
  9. 1984 Reagan +8.5%
  10. 1872 Grant +11.8%
  11. 1972 Nixon +21.9%

Bush won less of the popular vote (51.1%) than all but two repeat winners. Again, looking at elections since the Civil War: Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton each got 49.2% in his second victory. As it happens, those men beat two of the strongest third-party candidates in that time; the two-party pie was smaller in those races. Everyone else in the list above—Grant, McKinley, FDR three times, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan—had a bigger share of the popular vote than Bush. Among all presidential winners since 1872, that 51.1% figure is—you guessed it—the median.

Bush has lost one popular vote outright and won another by a historically slim margin. Among presidents since the start of the 20th century, he owns the smallest and fifth-smallest PV margins of victory. If we extend the view back as far as the Civil War (35 elections), he’s still completely in the Top Ten list of “squeak-by winners.” Again, “lower” rankings here are undesireable:

  1. 1876 Hayes -3.0%
  2. 1888 Harrison -0.8%
  3. 2000 G.W. Bush -0.5%
  4. 1880 Garfield 0.0%
  5. 1960 Kennedy 0.2%
  6. 1884 Cleveland 0.3%
  7. 1968 Nixon 1.1%
  8. 1976 Carter 2.1%
  9. 1892 Cleveland 3.1%
  10. 2004 G.W. Bush 3.1%

Outside of Texas, the House of Representatives is right where it was last month. The Republicans gained 5 House seats in Texas by gaming the political system to create an unprecedented second redistricting. Apart from that maneuver, an incumbent won in 388 out of 391 races! (The only incumbents that lost outside of Texas were Crane in IL-8, Burns in GA-12, and Hill IN-9.) I haven’t crunched the historical House numbers, but I seriously doubt that we’ve ever had that high a percentage before. The problems of the Democratic Party in the House are dwarfed by the challenge all Americans face: defeating gerrymandering.

OK, I’ll grant that the Republicans swamped the Democrats in the Senate. (If Daschle hadn’t lost his race, he would have been tarred and feathered by his caucusmates anyway.) And yes, liberals could do a much better job of promoting our plans and philosophy, and of shining a police floodlight on the lies and harm done by the right. Saying that Bush just got by (similar to his academic style) doesn’t mean we can be complacent. He still won.

But this ain’t no mandate. This ain’t no blowout. This ain’t no foolin’ around. We’re in Rutherford B. Hayes territory, not Reagan/Mondale. A friendly Congress and the lack of a big-time third-party candidate should have produced results for Bush that didn’t look so much like … Bill Clinton’s. Democrats, don’t whistle the Republicans’ “mandate” tune for them.

(A couple more explanations of the ways that Bush’s campaign outcome is, well, pathetic are here and here. They look more at raw numbers than percentages so use those if you prefer things like, “He will have won the three states that put him over 270 […] by only 161,989 […]”)

(Also: I was going to include something about the small number of states that switched sides (3, ties the fewest ever), but there are way too many variables for me to draw conclusions. I will say this: I know several people being swayed by the “sea of red” on EV maps, especially when they’re drawn by county. That’s useful as a way to confirm the Dem/urban, Repo/rural split that we all intuit, but it’s not useful as a way to gauge the relative strengths of the two parties. We don’t weight votes based on square miles or population density; always rely on EV maps that resize the states based on the number of electors; the NY Times has one here; once you get to the page, click to View Map According to Electoral Votes. Remember: the country isn’t mostly red, as most maps would imply; it’s really a purple country.)